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There are times in my conceitedness that I like to think I know a lot about films, and then something comes along to remind me that I still have a great deal to learn, and the process of acquiring knowledge is only ended on the termination of my own existence. "The Burmese Harp" is such a film that made me sit bolt upright, and gave me the strong feeling that I may actually be a better person for having watched it. Now that is what film making is really all about. I have never seen a single film of Kon Ichikawa's, which is something I must now rectify, unless of course something else comes along to distract me. I watched the blu-ray version in the Masters of Cinema series, and can truly say that this film has earned its place in that powerful series.

The story is set in Burma at the end of the Second World War, and unusually covers the psychological effects of the war from a Japanese perspective. A Japanese soldier surrenders to the British with his unit on learning of the Japanese surrender. He is venerated within the unit for his beautiful playing of the Burmese harp. But there are other Japanese units that refuse to surrender and the soldier is asked to undertake one last mission, to persuade one such unit to surrender rather than die needlessly. In doing so he is badly wounded and is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk. On recovering he journeys on foot across Burma to rejoin his old unit and return to Japan. But during the course of the journey he comes across the many unburied Japanese war dead, and this has a devastating impact on him.

The film contains so many powerful images that it is difficult to pick out a particular one, the location filming in Burma being a great help. One that I particularly remember is the soldier toiling to bury the dead on the side of a muddy river bank, watched by a group of local Burmese, who eventually stirred by his example join in to help. Such a deeply moving scene! All of the scenes involving the harp playing carry a huge impact. The use of music in the film is truly astounding. The mix of western and Japanese music being particularly effective. There is one scene where the soldiers of opposing forces both sing the same song in their own languages that is very touching. The harp perhaps stands as one of the greater monuments to mans creative beauty, being esteemed in classical times and long associated with civilisation. It is an apt device to set against the horrors of war. For anyone who struggles to understand the emotions that the soldier battles with, all is beautifully revealed in the films wonderful closing scenes.

The Nikkatsu studio originally released the film in two parts totalling 143 minutes. That was apparently trimmed down to 117 minutes for general release, against the wishes of Ichikawa. It is a great pity we do not have a directors cut version to illustrate the creators full vision. But what we have is more than enough to suffice. To watch this film now makes it seem a very strange thing indeed that we were at war with a people who could create a film such as this. How is it that such perverse situations exsisted and still exist to this day. It is unutterably sad. The quality of this blu-ray was fine, although it should be borne in mind that this black and white film was made back in 1956. This is an immensely powerful anti war movie that provides hugely rewarding viewing. A film that should be compulsory viewing to all, especially the warmongers of this world.
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on 27 March 2011
The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto), by Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, was nominated for the 1957 Academy Award (Oscars) in the newly-created 'Best Foreign Language Film' category. This fact alone should be a recommendation.

Tony Rayns' commentary, which is available as an extra in this set, is an invaluable introduction - and I advise watching it before the film itself. He explains, for example, why Ichikawa chose not to film in colour, choosing the more adaptable and lighter black and white camera system.

Like the 2006 film 'Letters from Iwo Jima' film, co-produced by Clint Eastwood, it's subject is the journey of the human spirit during physical conflict and war - specifically by Japanese soldiers in the Second World War Unlike this film, the Burmese Harp focuses less on battle and honour and more on compassion and compromise.

Like other 'Eureka - Masters of Cinema' titles, this is excellently presented with an informative booklet and DVD extras.
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on 16 March 2013
A moving film about the uselessness of war, as see by the despair of loyal soldiers who are ready to die for no reason, even after their country has surrendered. It is a highly recommended film, a masterpiece of its kind.

One man's personal attachment to his fallen comrades is the pretext to show us how human beings react in the face of death, defeat, resignation. His harp is the link with his comrades, both fallen and alive, with the country he has fought in, with the local population and, in the end, with his inner self.

The film is a bit too benign on Japanese war atrocities. Yes, this is not its subject, and one can sense in a scene or two that there was hostility by the local population against the Japanese. Yet the film would have been more complete if it had also shown that the dispirited Japanese soldiers in 1945 had been responsible for immense harm to the beautiful country of Burma that is portrayed here. Showing their cruelty would have made their humanity stand out better. (Actually the film was mostly shot in Japan, but no matter.) The old Burmese lady who trades and exchanges gifts with the Japanese soldiers leaves one with the impression that the Japanese occupation was not so bad after all.

The film is shot in B&W, which in my view adds to its dramatic effect by giving a greater impression of decay and doom. As we are told in the commentary included in this disc, the choice of B&W was made by Ishihara after the color technology that was made available to him proved impractical for the kind of shooting over difficult terrain that was required in this film.
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on 9 February 2012
I first saw The Burmese Harp (aka Harp of Burma) when it was first released. It left such an indelible mark on me,that I have never been able to erase it after more than half a century. The bluray release is back again for a new generation of moviegoers to see. My only complaint is that we do not see the original 2 part film that was shown in Japan. Instead we are offered the International cinema release. Truly the greatest anti-war film EVER made.Every frame is an unforgettable masterpiece of filmaking.No student of cinema should miss seeing this film.How many films of today will still be remembered in another 50 years? Very few.One of the world's greatest directors has given us a lasting tribute to his genius.I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen this film and in each viewing, I have discovered something new. The finale is truly unforgettable.An anti-war film like no other and a masterpiece like no other.
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on 27 February 2016
I like it and I recommend to every viewer to review it by seeing the ccity of life and eath about the same people Japanese soldiers at Nanking. or 39 battalion on Kokoda trail or with Eric lambert Book Veterans where cannibalism by starving japs on viligers and POW is documented. It si rather sentimental whitewash fro Japanese audience but worthy to see as to know what they chew about themselves.
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on 24 December 2010
I have nothing against Hollywood, it has contributed great science fiction, action adventure and comedy movies, but war-themed movies with a philosophical or morally didactic twist, it cannot do.

Watch pretty much any of those before you watch this and you'll see the difference: In one of the first scenes, when the Japanese and British troop meet, in more than one ways, and sing together an anthem. In a Hollywood movie, you would get some slow-motion, random shots of clenched jaw-lines (although they are supposedly singing) then flashbacks to the girlfriend getting worried a few thousand miles away, etc, i am sure you seen it before and rolled your eyes at how cheap it looks. No sensationalism here. Instead you get the anthem with shots of clouds and mountains. And from there on... it gets bleaker.

A great, great movie and a great release from Eureka with a booklet that looks like something out of a collector's edition!
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on 8 May 2015
This was a very good film seen from a totally unknown perspective of the Burmese soldiers faced against Japanese soldiers during the Korean War.
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on 3 August 2015
Really great movie.
Follows the book which is also superb.
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on 22 August 2011
Ichikawa has emerged as a cult figure in the history of post-war cinema. Certainly, he directed some 90 films but many are frankly mediocre and this, dating from 1956, is one of them.

Call me a Philistine if you will, but I cannot join the arty-farty brigade who regard 'The Burmese Harp' as an anti-war cinematic masterpiece. I write simply as an enthusiastic film-goer and collector who, over a period of more than 70 years, has enjoyed viewing hundreds of REALLY good films.

The story-line of 'The Burmese Harp' is patently absurd. In the closing days of World War II, a unit of Japanese soldiers in Burma, making for the Thai border, discovers that hostilities have ended and that Japan has been heavily defeated. The unit is commanded by an officer who was a musician in civilian life and who has taught his men the elements of choral singing, a skill that they put to good use in moments of stress or depression. In addition, a talented Private by the name of Mizushima has acquired and taught himself to play upon a Burmese harp. This is useful because, apart from accompanying the choir, Mizushima can use his harp to signal back to the unit when he is sent out on reconnaissance. (Presumably, the enemy cannot hear him.)

One of the more bizarre sequences in the film occurs when the Japanese soldiers, hiding in a Burmese village from the advancing British, raise their spirits by singing a Japanese version of 'Home, Sweet Home'. As the Brits emerge from the jungle they, too, break into 'Home, Sweet Home', albeit in rather strangled English. (The film was actually shot in southern Japan, the actor playing Mizushima taking a quick trip to Burma to be filmed in front of a few pagodas and Buddha images to provide some authenticity.) The scene ends with both sides joining in a multilingual rendering of 'Home, Sweet Home' before the Japanese are marched off to an internment camp. Roll over, Morriston Male Voice Choir: you have nothing on these lads!

Meanwhile, Mizushima, armed with his harp rather than a rifle, has been sent to persuade another Japanese unit holed up in a mountain fastness, to surrender. He has promised to return to the internment camp at the conclusion of his mission which, unfortunately, is unsuccessful as the Japanese, in true Imperial spirit, vote to fight to the end. They are wiped out but Mizushima survives.

Mizushima now disguises himself as a monk for his journey to the internment camp; but along the way he comes across the unburied bodies of Japanese soldiers and sees the light. His true mission in life is to honour the Japanese war dead by burying or cremating their remains wherever he finds them. He takes instruction and enters the Buddhist monkhood, realising that he cannot now re-join his unit in captivity. In the vicinity of the internment camp he is spotted by his comrades in arms and an anguished debate ensues: is the monk really Mizushima and, if so, why has he abandoned them?

In another bizarre sequence, contact between Mizushima and his unit is now established by means of tame parrots, who have been taught a few words of Japanese. One of the few genuinely emotional scenes occurs when Mizushima appears outside the barbed wire fence of the camp and plays a farewell to his comrades - on his harp, of course.

Happily, the Japanese soldiers are to be repatriated and, en-route to Japan by ship, their commander reads them a valedictory letter from Mizushima, in which he explains his motives. He may never return to Japan: his role now is to wander the length and breadth of Burma, burying the remains of his countrymen wherever he finds them. He will find solace by playing his Burmese harp.

All this takes 117 minutes to watch. A longer version of the film has, mercifully, been lost. At least the English sub-titles are excellent and help one to understand what is going on.

Technically, I was almost as disappointed by the quality of this blu-ray release as I was by the movie itself. Filmed in black and white, the 1080p AVC encode is rather faded and washed out (perhaps this look was Ichikawa's intention) and does not bear comparision with other recently re-mastered B&W transfers of cinema classics on blu-ray. Apart from the usual pops and buzzes inherent in a 55 year old soundtrack, there is a lot of distortion, particularly during the musical climaxes.

I cannot say that I am sorry to have seen this weird film, which I found amusing rather than heart-rending, but my copy will be going to e-Bay rather than into my collection!
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on 29 January 2016
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